It takes a village to put on a playoff game

Posted 11/30/23

It’s 76 miles from Honey Grove to Mineola, and from Centerville it is 119. The routes are pretty straightforward. From Honey Grove it runs south through Ladonia, around Commerce, through Miller …

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It takes a village to put on a playoff game


It’s 76 miles from Honey Grove to Mineola, and from Centerville it is 119. The routes are pretty straightforward. From Honey Grove it runs south through Ladonia, around Commerce, through Miller Grove to Emory and down US 69 to Mineola. From Centerville, one turns right at Buffalo, goes around Palestine, through Coffee City and Noonday and on through Smith County.

Mineola had the good fortune to host the class 2A area playoff game between Honey Grove and Centerville Nov. 17.  Although Meredith Memorial Stadium was not filled to capacity, many fans from both communities made the long treks to support their teams.

In addition to great football – Honey Grove won in an absolute thriller 40-36 – hosting a playoff game allowed an opportunity to delve just a bit deeper into how all the mechanics behind a successful event, such as playoff football, happen.   

Mineola Athletic Director (AD) Luke Blackwell shed some light on the selection of playoff venues.

“Given the number of playoff games staged each fall, schools have to project a couple of weeks ahead to secure a site,” Blackwell said. Those requests, he explained, are generally made AD to AD.  

Once the specific match-ups are known, some old-fashioned negotiations between the competing schools ensue.

“The horse-trading usually centers on who will be designated the home team and who will be the visitors, but it could also hinge on selection of the officiating crew or even which uniform a coach might want his team to wear,” Blackwell said. 

In the event agreement is not at hand, there is always the time-tested method of flipping a coin. Blackwell described the remote method used by coaches to flip a coin. It normally involves an impartial third party and a question posed to one of the coaches over the telephone. 

“We tend to use the Texas Coaches Directory,” Blackwell said, “One coach is asked whether the area code to a specific town in Texas is odd or even.” Simple as it sounds, Texas is a big state, so the technique works. 

One advantage of designation as the home team in Mineola is use of the Jackets’ fieldhouse facility which is, of course, immediately adjacent to the field. The visiting team uses the nearby middle school facility just across the parking lot. 

As both teams are coming from out of town, two Mineola coaches are appointed as liaisons. They meet each team upon arrival, take them through their respective locker rooms and generally ensure they have everything they need. 

Long before game day, however, other folks are hard at work, preparing. Mineola ISD Administrative Assistant Sara West is dialing UT Health to arrange for dedicated ambulance support. She is also arranging for the delivery of press box food – this year provided by Pizza Hut. 

Notably, the field and stadium are cleaned and prepped. Although this seems an obvious step, it is clear that some schools miss these basic steps in the process. 

In Mineola the new turf is swept to ensure proper settling of the surface, while the maintenance and custodial crews are tending to everything from adjacent grassy areas to the cleanliness and logistics in the bathrooms.    

The use of Meredith Memorial Stadium is formally arranged through a simple two-page contract. It will stipulate the contract price – a small stipend paid to the school – as well as the ticketing prices and gate percentages which are destined for the two competing schools.

A call to Centerville (halfway between Palestine and College Station) on game day revealed that the game was the topic of conversation at the Town Cafe, just south of the Leon County courthouse. 

There, waitress and Centerville High School junior Lexi Brent commented, “The Tigers normally rate front-page coverage in the paper, and Friday nights are busy at the cafe. Folks are very excited about the team.”

She was looking forward to finishing her shift in order to make the trip for the big game. 

About the time that Brent and other Centerville fans were heading out for the trip to Mineola, the Mineola Band Boosters were arriving to set up the concession stand.

Heather Kinder, in her fourth year as president of the boosters, was leading a team of 18 volunteers (seven adults and 11 band members). 

Kinder described the work earlier in the week which goes into successfully running the concessions.

On a good night at the stadium, the hard work will pay off with a net profit of $1,500-$2,000 for the band.  She also recognized the work of so many volunteers, as well as the partnership between Golden Chick and the band boosters.   

Security is always a visible presence at Mineola home games. This night was no exception.

As Tommy Carden of the Mineola Police Department and Tucker George of the Wood County Sheriffs Office confirmed, “Being seen and presenting a strong presence is always a big part of the job.” 

Local fans are welcomed to the stadium by the familiar faces of Kaye Morris and her band of gatekeepers manning the ticket booths and spectator gates. The team of four are school employees and know most Jacket fans by name. 

Zipping around the stadium on a Gator are members of the maintenance staff, tending to any one of 100 things which fall under the guise of maintenance. A recent addition to the maintenance team, David Cossabone, was manning the player gate for the visiting Centerville Tigers.  

Up in the press box, the scoreboard, play clock and lights were being tended by coaches Kameron Neely, Dalton Dover and Jacob Davis, respectively. The game was a bit different in that regard, as during the regular season, members of the community fulfill most duties in the press box.  

Also unique to the game last Friday, in the broadcast booth was a two-man broadcasting-team led by Terry Paul Cunningham covering the game for Mix 107.7 from Paris.

Cunningham embodies much of what defines scholastic sports in East Texas. In addition to doing all of the Honey Grove stadium announcing, and simultaneously, the radio broadcasts of the Warriors games, he also is a permanent substitute at Honey Grove schools and has driven a school bus for 18 years. He is also the mayor pro tem of Honey Grove and is the pastor of the Westside Baptist Church. The Honey Grove native is a living example of the tightly woven fabric of schools and communities in East and Northeast Texas.

Cunningham has been announcing Honey Grove football games for 34 years.

He acknowledges, “It’s always special. This team is special. They mean so much to this community. It is a really special group of youngsters, trying to do something which hasn’t been done since 1921.” (In 1921 Honey Grove lost to Dallas Oak Cliff 7-0 , falling short of the semi-final round of the 1A state playoffs.) 

Soon after kick-off the ambulance from UT Health rolled up beside the fieldhouse. EMT Austin Reynolds and Medic Alex Lafountain were providing the dedicated support for the game. They described the medical coverage as being determined by the specific service areas and the requests of the hosting school. The two, who exuded quiet confidence, were thankfully not called upon during the game. 

The full seven-man officiating crew out of the Tyler chapter called an excellent game. They were consistent and attentive and did not impact the outcome. 

All-in-all, the Honey Grove-Centerville game was a tribute to scholastic football and everyone who makes it happen. From the combined half-time program (both bands performing together) to the high standards of sportsmanship demonstrated by both teams throughout the game, the night was truly a celebration.